Why coal is not coming back

By Frank Convery, EDF Chief Economist

This regular column honors the memory of Robert W. Wilson, a longtime EDF supporter and champion of harnessing market forces to drive environmental progress.

Article published Spring 2017

In his February address to the joint session of Congress, President Donald Trump said, “We are going to stop the regulations that threaten the future and livelihood of our great coal miners.” But regulations are not the main threat to miners’ future and livelihood; the market is. Coal supplies go mainly to power plants, and increasingly, plant owners prefer natural gas to coal because gas is cheaper.

And even if the sharp decline in production were to be reversed, there would be only modest jobs gains in Wyoming and the interior, and bigger job losses in Appalachia.

In a recent interview on NPR, Professor Robert Godby of the University of Wyoming spoke about the jobs implications of a 5% increase in coal production. “Most of that production increase is going to occur in the West, and that probably will occur in Wyoming,” Godby said. “So you might see about 600 new jobs, maybe more in the West, particularly in Wyoming. And you might see about a thousand more job losses in Appalachia. And the interior might get 150 to 200 new jobs.”

President Trump does a serious disservice to coal miners in Appalachia when he both misdiagnoses the problem (regulation is not what is threatening the future of coal) and proposes that deregulation will be their salvation. These miners need real help, not bombast, to adapt to coal’s ongoing decline.